News and Events

Successor Succeeds at Painting Air

Successor Succeeds at Painting Air

It started as a dare.

It started as a dare. In 1988 Spencer Finch MFA 89 SC and his friend and fellow classmate, contemporary artist Paul Ramirez Jonas MFA 89 SC, were roaming the galleries of the RISD Museum, debating the social significance of Impressionism. Immersed in Marxist criticism, Finch was convinced that Impressionist paintings were worthless, serving up nothing but decadent bourgeois ideals.

So Jonas challenged him to try making one. “[Paul] dared me to copy the Monet paintingThe Basin at Argenteuil,” Finch says. “I thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t.”

Finch told this story when speaking withJudith Tannenbaum, Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum, in preparation for his solo show,Painting Air: Spencer Finch, which continues through July 29. The two-part exhibition, featuring his work as both an artist and curator, includes his attempted copies of the Impressionist masterpiece along with the original from 1874, which is part of the museum’s permanent collection.

As it turns out, the act of replicating Monet’s study of atmospheric effects and natural light proved to be a turning point in Finch’s trajectory as an artist. A century after the Impressionist master famously said, “I want to paint the air . . . and that is nothing short of impossible,” Finch began to share that same obsession.

However, his own fixation with color and light has taken on myriad forms, from drawing and watercolor to photography, video, installations and sculpture. Now, withPainting Air, Finch has come full circle in more ways than one: He is exhibiting in the very venue where he took on that pivotal dare, and with a major site-specific installation at the core of the show, he has created a world of painted squares and hanging glass—inspired by his 2011 visit to Monet’s water garden in Giverny, France – that speaks to the power of creative influence, the complexity of optical phenomena in nature and the artistic drive to give form to what is inherently intangible.

“The work really creates an environment, a space that changes and that people seem to want to spend time in,” Tannenbaum says of the installation of more than 100 transparent, highly reflective glass panels suspended across a 150-linear-foot-long mural of square shapes painted in 34 different colors. As the glass panels sway, they reflect both the colored rectangles and any movements in the gallery, perpetually shifting viewers’ perspectives.

“It’s a physical experience and a visual experience,” says Tannenbaum. “It’s not about seeing an object, it’s about being in a particular space.”

For the curatorial component of the exhibition, Finch dove into the Museum’s storage areas to pluck selections from the permanent collection that really speak to him, from works by 19th-century portrait artistJohn Singer Sargent to Expressionist painterEgon Schiele to contemporary multimedia artistBruce Nauman.

“I’ve been thinking about the galleries being the conscious part of the Museum and storage being the unconscious part,” Finch says. “These weird things that pop out of storage aren’t as controllable as what’s on view, but we rarely get to see them.”

Having once dismissed the entire Impressionist movement, Finch now openly embraces Monet as one of his most enduring influences. “Monet’s work… was about this idea of trying to capture some thing—a place, a moment, an impression, a light condition—and repeatedly returning to it to get closer to its essence, while at the same time admitting the impossibility of doing so,” Finch says. “That impossibility is interesting to me—the impossibility of representation, the impossibility of communication, the impossibility of making art, to a certain degree.”